Faith for the rest of us

 

Photo Credit: “Jacob Wrestles”, © 2013 michael_swan, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio14093709943_87b56566e3_o.jpg

Photo Credit: “Jacob Wrestles”, © 2013 michael_swan, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

22The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Genesis 32:22-31

                In the early 90’s the movie Hero made me think differently about what it takes to be a hero. I used to think that heroes were extraordinary people but the movie turned that idea on its head for me.

The person who saved the day was a unscrupulous character who didn’t play well to the cultural ideal of a hero and throughout the movie we see the characters come to terms about what it means to be a hero.

Personally it made me realize that heroes are not extraordinary people rather they are ordinary people who in perhaps only one moment in time, did an extraordinary thing.

Heroes – we love them and we hate them. They are everything that we hope to be and at the same time, they are everything that we are not. We look up to heroes for inspiration but at times, when we measure ourselves according to the outward appearance of their heroic acts, we find ourselves falling short.

In her book, flunking sainthood, Jana Reiser, explores her own attempt to live a faithful life, perhaps trying to live up to some of her spiritual heroes. She decided to take on a year-long project of reading the spiritual classics while attempting different spiritual disciplines.

From the title of her book, you can imagine how the year turned out for Jana.

As her story unfolds, we laugh with her and cry with her. In February she fasted from food but instead of realizing that it didn’t necessarily make her feel closer to God as she was expecting, however, she began to realize a deeper truth . It dawned on her that, “fasting is not for visions or even for answers to prayer. It’s not to manipulate God into acting according to our wishes, and not to show God just how willing we are to sacrifice something for him. Fasting is to help us on that painful road toward humility.”[1]

Throughout the year, as Jana engages in other spiritual disciplines, we find that the road isn’t easy for her as she recognizes her humanity and her limits but she also experiences God in the midst of all those failures. What we begin to see is that those spiritual practices reveal more of who she is and her need of God and that discovery continues to unfold for her throughout the year.

What Jana experiences during this year exemplifies the understanding that we are at the same time both sinner and saint. That in our humanity we have need of God but at the same time, God declares us saint and gives us his blessing.

I think that is why I like Jacob so much. We’ve declared him to be a hero in faith although he possesses so many qualities that make him so difficult to want to emulate.

The list of undesirable and unethical behaviour stacks up as the story of Genesis unfolds, we learn more about Jacob, one of the patriarchs of the faith.

Jacob takes advantage of his brother, Esau’s hunger to gain a birthright that he had no claim to. Unfortunately for Esau, it wasn’t the last time that he experienced his brother’s treachery. On the day Esau was to be blessed, Jacob, with help from their mother, beat him to the punch. Jacob intentionally, deceived his father into believing that Jacob himself was Esau and received his father’s blessing in Esau’s stead. Finally, although it could be argued that his father in law had it coming, Jacob took advantage of Laman’s trust in him to gain wealth through dishonourable means.

No, Jacob was not perfect. He was never satisfied and he always wanted more. More from life. More from those round him. More from God.

So much more that he wrestled with God at Peniel.  He wrestled with God AND received a blessing.

No matter how often we struggle. No matter how fierce our resistance. No matter the struggle that we engage in as we grasp for more with God.

In the end, God blesses us.

Yes, that’s right…even though we mess up, even when we are manipulative to get what we want, God redeems us and blesses us.

Jana and Jacob’s stories gives hope to the rest of us as we have our own struggles in the life of faith.

Perhaps like me their stories are making you consider the ways in which you struggle with God and perhaps the most helpful to do is to acknowledge those ways that we strive with God like Jacob.

So today I invite you to take a moment to  write down ways that right now, you are striving for more and struggling with God and I invite you to share with your pastor or with someone who is your spiritual mentor those things that you are struggling with so that others can pray with you in the struggle.

We might not be perfect in our faith yet God declares his blessing. We might always struggle for more instead of being content, yet God names us blessed.

Jana may have flunked at the kind of sainthood that most people think of when they think of our heroes of faith but she did receive her blessing. Six weeks after she submitted the manuscript to the publishers she received a phone call from the hospital that her father whom she had not seen in 27 years was laying dying in the hospital.

Her father had left her family when she was 14, cleaning out her mother’s bank account and her whe found herself facing  the difficult decision as to whether she would fly to his bedside. To top it off, she had been asked by the hospital to make the decision to take him off of life support as he was unresponsive and could not breath on his own.

As she shared her story I could not help but notice that even though she felt as if she had flunked sainthood, she was describing that God’s presence and peace was with her right in the middle of this gut wrenching experience. I  couldn’t help but notice that in the midst of all her failures and fears our God was naming and claiming her as his own. God was in the middle of her struggle declaring that she was blessed.

We all struggle against something.

We all fight for more.

And in those moments when we are wrestling with God we can remember that although we struggle, there is a fine line between wrestling and embrace. And while we might be fighting God. I’m pretty sure he is just there holding onto us not wanting to let us go until we let go, subside and so that he can give us that blessing. Thanks be to God.

[1] Jana Reiser, flunking sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray and Still Loving My Neighbour. Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2011.

Sola Deo Gloria

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Photo Credit: “Thankful”, © 2012 Jeff Turner, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

1On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.
Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
And as they went, they were made clean.
15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.
And he was a Samaritan.
17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?
18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Luke 17:11-19

I follow the blog called “The Real Full House” written by “Danny”, a pseudonym for this man who lives the reality of that 90’s television show, Full House. This week he shared his thoughts on gratitude in response to his week and the connections he made.[1]

Last weekend, he met an old friend at a concert who knew “Lisa”, his spouse who had died after a bout with cancer.  They got to talking and his friend when asked how he was, said that he was 96% good and 4% needed working on. While saying those words, Danny’s friend teared up saying that Lisa’s death had taught him that that can change at any time.[2]

Danny continued to reflect on those words over the weekend and realized that for a long time while they lived through his wife’s struggle with terminal cancer and then subsequently experienced the grief of her death, those numbers for him were reversed where 96% of his life needed working on and only 4% was good. But even in the midst of the illness, on the advice of others who had experienced their own tragedies, he and his wife tried to recognize the good as difficult as it was in the midst of facing death.[3]

He then went onto say that now that his life was about 96% good, he found himself focusing on that 4% that needed work instead of all that was going so well in his world. It was a good reminder to him of all that he has to be grateful for.[4]

I was listening the other day to a podcast that talked about the research on gratitude and you’d be surprised to hear that it shows that people who are grateful have “stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure on average, fewer symptoms of illness, less anxiety and depression. [Those who are grateful are] less bothered by aches and pains when they are sick…[and they] also sleep better on average… Many recoverbetter from traumatic events and they seem to have better relationships with people close to them.”[5]

So the question was asked, if it’s so good for us, how come people are not more grateful.

Good question, right?

One of the key components to gratitude is thinking that you are the joyful recipient of something that you don’t really deserve. It seems that the catch about gratitude is that one needs to recognize that we are dependent on something outside of ourselves for what we have in life.

Being grateful can be difficult because we are desperate to believe that we are masters of our fates and that not much is out of our control. To top that off, we think that by in large we are good people who deserve only good things.

It is too easy to congratulate ourselves when things are going right by saying that we are doing all the right things. It is so easy to blame others when things are going wrong saying that we are blameless. It is a whole lot more difficult to recognize that all that we have and all that we are is a gift from God on whom we are truly dependant.

I’m not sure that those other 9 lepers were not grateful. I’m pretty sure they were.

I wonder though if they really understood to whom they were dependant on for their very life. I wonder if they might not have felt that they deserved to be healed.

But to me, that begs the question. If only those that deserve to be healed are, then what of the others that aren’t so lucky and are not healed? Does that mean they don’t deserve to be healed?

I’m pretty sure we don’t want to say that God is doing that: picking and choosing the winners and losers based on our merit.

This foreigner must have come back because he recognized in Jesus that God was present in human flesh here to be with him. He must have recognized that God was there and present to him even though he was ‘other’.

Perhaps this foreigner recognized who Jesus was because he or she had nothing and yet was still healed. Perhaps this foreigner could recognize his complete dependence on God because he knew that according to the rest of the world, he didn’t deserve anything.

The last thing anyone accompanying Jesus that day would have expected was that a Samaritan would recognize Jesus was as Lord. Yet it was a Samaritan, probably the last person expected to see God.

You see, even the experts who research gratitude say that it isn’t so much about listing the things we are grateful for.[6] Gratitude is a deep recognition of who we are in our failures and our flaws. It is recognizing that the something or someone outside of us has more control than we’d like to admit.

Gratitude follows when we remember that the God of all creation loves us as we are. While we may not deserve it all the time, and while life might now always turn out exactly how we want it to, we can be grateful for what we have recognizing that we don’t have us much control as we’d like to think.

As one author put it,

“gratitude is not the same as giving thanks. It comes from a deeper place that knows the story could have ended differently, and often does. Gratitude is surviving the worst thing you can imagine…and realizing that you are still standing.

Gratitude helps you cheer the news that the lump is not malignant, and helps you to be grateful when you learn, as my friend Diana did, that her husband was not in any pain from his cancer, and could come home from the hospital to die with the cat on his bed, his dogs underneath it and family all around.”[7]

At times it is difficult to find the silver lining in many of those things that drag us down and wonder if it is worth continuing to put one foot in front of the other. And yet there can be this realization that brings us to our knees recognizing that life is a gift from God and we are humbled and we are grateful to be a part of it.

I think it was this kind of feeling that moved that Samaritan to return to Jesus, to prostrate himself at Jesus’ feet and giving thanks.

We have a ritual in our family of beginning and ending the day with a blessing. One of many blessings that we use in the morning is the words, “God loves you and I love you and it’s going to be a wonderful day. And even if it isn’t, God will be with you.”

I kind of think that that is what gratitude is. The recognition that in all of who I am and in all of what happens to me whether I deserve it or not, God loves me and God is with me.

As Thomas Merton says, “To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise the goodness of God.” (Reis, flunking sainthood, p. 109-110). 

Sola Deo Gloria. To God alone the glory.

 

 

 

[1] https://therealfullhouse.wordpress.com/2016/10/05/ninety-six-percent/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2695491466.

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://www.womansday.com/life/real-women/a6267/life-lessons-giving-thanks-125063/.